Press 1 for English

I cannot believe the vehement reactions of some people when they are asked to press one for English when calling a large business or government entity. We’ve seen politicians, editorials, and even Facebook groups evoke the mantra “this is America, we speak English here!” So, what is it that they are so worked up about? I think many Americans see immigration and globalization as a threat to American culture, and the presence of foreign influences as an assault on our language, borders and culture.

As Sinclair discusses in Globalization, Supranational Institutions, and Media, we live in a world in which English is “the language of advantage,” spoken by the richest, and is also the world’s most widely spoken second language. The reason and the effect of this, is the preeminence of the US in the world’s audiovisual trade, and much discussion has been focused on its potential for cultural imperialism. As Sinclair, Hanson and Appadurai all discuss, globalization does not lead homogeneity for the receiving culture. What they don’t really address are the implications for the US itself, as the exporter.

I think the flip side to dominating what Boyd-Barrett calls the “global popular,” meaning globally marketed cultural products, is that America is linguistically isolated and under-exposed to foreign languages. Since we are the main producers of such products, like Hollywood movies and popular music, our entertainment media is monopolized by our own English language. Whereas other countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America and some places in Africa and the Middle East, have their own local movie and music culture, as well as American entertainment products, AND each others’ to boot! Even Ricky Martin and Shakira only became very popular here after they recorded albums in English. Foreign films? Yes, a few independent theatres show them, and then there is Sundance and IFC on cable- but not in wide-release throughout America’s chain theatres. 

Americans are used to exporting the English language through media products, not the other way around.  Even our educational system does not emphasize the study of foreign languages as much, or as early, as some other countries (although this seems to be improving). Just like post-colonial countries reacting to cultural imperialism from the west, it seems the US is reacting to globalization, which it fears will dilute American language and culture. Turns out it’s a two-way street.

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2 Responses to Press 1 for English

  1. Liza says:

    Mariam, I am in total agreement with you of not understanding why people are so threatened by the use of Spanish/other languages and other cultures in the United States. Personally, I wish the United States was bilingual and people were more open to multicultural settings. In my hometown of San Francisco, there used to be many public schools that taught using bilingual education; however, they have all closed because people did not agree with this type of education. Now there only private schools are able to incorporate bilingual education from the young age of kindergarten.

    Also, from growing up in San Francisco, we have both a strong Asian and Hispanic influence. I grew up celebrating Chinese New Year and the day of the dead (dia de los muertos). Until I came to College on the east coast, I didn’t realize these celebrations are not American cultural norms and I don’t see anything wrong with them becoming American cultural norms.

    I think this notion of being scared and threaten by immigration and globalization is exemplified by Samuel Huntington’s article “The Hispanic Challenge.” He notes that the inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens our culture and is going to force the United States to have two distinct cultures and languages. It is definitely an article I would recommend reading and gives an interesting (one that I usually do not agree with) perspective.

  2. jhenske says:

    There is definitely a segment of the population that is against any type of change to the stereotypical American way of life. They are happy with Baseball, American Pie and the status quo and see any potential changes as threats on culture rather than the growth in society. Interestingly, we push America on other places, and are surprised when it doesn’t take. We wonder “why do they hate America?” and “why doesn’t everyone else just learn English” in the same thought process.

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